Learning Navajo language helps students connect to their culture

April 17, 2014

Navajo is not only a language that may be learned through classes at Arizona State University, it’s a way for students to reconnect to their culture.

“Language is one key thing. You can still be Navajo without knowing the language but there are a lot of teachings, like songs and ceremonies, that can’t be sung in English. It wouldn’t make sense and it wouldn’t be the same,” said Elijah Allan, an ASU senior majoring in conservation biology and geology with a minor in American Indian Studies. teacher and students in a Navajo language class at ASU Download Full Image

Teaching classes in Navajo is also helping to revitalize what is now classified as a dying language, said Jolyana Begay, an American Indian Studies instructor who teaches beginner and intermediate Navajo classes.

“I really feel that it is my duty, my role as a speaker of the language, to ensure its existence and teach to our future generations. It makes me happy that students take a very strong interest in the language,” Begay said.

Freshman Cora Tso decided to grow closer to her culture by taking Navajo classes. She would like to see more Navajo youth embrace their language and learn how it relates to the traditional way of life. Tso, who grew up in Page, came to the realization of what it meant to master the language after learning about the history of the Navajo people and what her ancestors and grandparents have experienced.

“Young people don’t realize that their culture and their language are dying. I learned about the importance of clans, traditions and customs growing up. I knew it was important,” Tso said. “I feel it’s a personal duty to myself and to my future children to keep the language going so they can know the importance of what it is to be Navajo.”

Learning the language that belongs to them

Classroom sessions focus on reading, writing and speaking the indigenous language. Interspersed among the lessons are discussions about the culture, focusing on topics such as the importance of clans and what livestock means to the Navajo people.

“We’re fortunate to provide opportunities that allow students to learn the language that belongs to them,” said Begay, whose clans are Red Running into the Water People, Black Streak Wood People, Red Bottom Cheek People and Giant People of the Red Running in the Water People. “Navajo is a very descriptive language that is verb-based. It sounds a lot like poetry.”

Allan realized he wanted to learn more about his language and his culture while he was enlisted in the U.S. Army, and fellow soldiers would ask about his heritage. At times, he didn’t have an answer. He also worked with the Navajo Nation Emergency Medical Services, where knowing the language can help in treating those whose only language is Navajo.

That led him to the realization that he had missed out on cultural aspects of his tribe when he was growing up on the Navajo Reservation. Allan’s mother was fluent in Navajo, but didn’t teach it to her children, perhaps because of what she experienced during boarding school, said Allan, who went to school in Tuba City and Kayenta, and is from Shonto and Toligai on the Navajo Nation. His clans are Salt Clan, Caucasian People and Bitterwater.

“They were physically abused and punished for talking the language,” Allan said. “Language is a big part of our society and culture, and it makes your community stronger. It shows that people take pride in who they are.”

Difficult language, yet a reminder of home

Classes are structured in a manner that allows students to interact as much as possible in a language that is not easy to master.

The Navajo language is a very difficult language to learn. Students need to learn to use muscles that are not used in English. The best way to learn is to try to speak,” Begay said. “The Navajo language has diacritical markings, such as high tones, nasal sounds and glottalized consonants. It takes practice.”

Lab time spent outside of class consists of interacting in Navajo through conversations with elders, speaking during ceremonies at home or talking with fluent speakers on campus.

“It’s hard to teach my tongue to say the different vowel sounds and symbols,” said Tso, whose clans are Reed People, Black-Streaked Wood, Bitterwater and Red House. “You need to interact with others to know that you are saying it right.”

Navajo class also gives many students a welcome reminder of home.

“Many of the students sometimes begin to feel homesick after moving from the reservation to ASU. They miss their grandmothers. They miss the sound of the language,” Begay said.

Allan, a Barrett Honors College student, hopes to use his language skills in his career, as he plans to work with Native people and be a voice for them, especially when it comes to teachings about the environment and people’s relationship with the land.

Tso plans to help her people as she works toward a dual degree in American Indian Studies and political science. A Barrett Honors College student and Gates Millennial scholar, she plans to attend law school and learn Indian law, eventually working for the tribe.

“I don’t see many people talking about language preservation or cultural restoration. More students are working in the present. I think we’re all trying to do our best to work with the world we’ve been born into,” Tso said.

ASU difference maker builds global impact, characters – in Chinese

April 17, 2014

Professor Madeline Spring has been selected to receive the 2014 Gary S. Krahenbuhl Difference Maker Award presented by ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

The annual award was established through generous contributions of faculty, staff and friends of ASU to recognize and celebrate a faculty member who personifies the spirit of difference-making demonstrated by Krahenbuhl, a former dean of the college. Madeline Spring, director of the Chinese Language Flagship program at ASU Download Full Image

A distinguished professor of Chinese, Spring is the director of the Chinese Language Program in the School of International Letters and Cultures. Her research endeavors include the study of medieval Chinese literature and current issues in Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language (TCFL). In that area, her focus is on curricular design and implementation, teacher training, computer-based instruction, intercultural communication and second language acquisition and assessment. She is the author of "Making Connections: Improve Your Listening Comprehension in Chinese," now in its second edition.

Spring also is the director of two important institutional programs at ASU: the Confucius Institute and the Chinese Language Flagship program. The former is a partnership with Sichuan University and, unlike many Confucius Institutes, has a pronounced academic orientation and works closely with ASU faculty members, community groups and K-12 education. The latter is designed to move students to superior levels of Chinese language proficiency during their time at ASU.

“Professor Spring has transformed ASU and our state, creating programs that set up our students at ASU and in Arizona to be among the top professionals in their chosen career fields, internationally,” said Patrick Kenney, interim dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

“Madeline Spring is that kind of rare difference maker in academia: a faculty member who energizes programs for the community along with top performance in the classroom and in her research,” said George Justice, dean of humanities in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “Because of Dr. Spring, students can come to ASU with no experience in Chinese and have their lives transformed personally and professionally. Her direct impact on campus and community is remarkable.”

ASU’s Chinese Language Flagship is part of a network of 26 programs at 22 universities across the United States. Eleven of these are for Chinese. Due to her experience and talents, Spring was recruited to create a program at ASU that offered multi-level, intensive curricula for ASU undergraduates who seek to achieve superior professional-level language proficiency and advanced cultural skills in Chinese. In 2012, Flagship program added an ROTC component, making it one of three in the U.S. and the only one in the West. This program reaches out to highly motivated students of all majors in Army, Navy and Air Force ROTC whose schedules might previously have prevented the development of their critical language skills. These efforts are funded by the Department of Defense and National Security Education Program.

Under the leadership of ASU President Michael Crow, the Confucius Institute was developed by professor Stephen H. West, Spring and Cutter in partnership with Sichuan University and the Office of Chinese Language Council International. The institute supports numerous scholarly activities, provides language instructors to supplement those already teaching in the Chinese language program and works to enhance understanding about China and promote K-12 language training more broadly in Arizona. The institute now cooperates with partner schools, such as Boulder Creek High School, Cactus Shadows High School, Diamond Canyon School, Gavilan Peak School, Horseshoe Trails Elementary School, Lone Mountain Elementary School, Rhodes Junior High School and Sonoran Trails Middle School. Spring has also worked with community groups, as well as school districts and the Arizona Department of Education.

“Professor Spring has developed the Chinese language program at ASU into one of the best in the country,” said Joe Cutter, director of the School of International Letters and Cultures. “Students come to ASU from outside Arizona specifically to be part of this program. She has made a huge difference in our students’ lives. It is truly heartwarming to hear these outstanding young people talk about their achievements and their sense of gratitude to professor Spring.”

The Gary S. Krahenbuhl Difference Maker Award has been awarded since 2003 to a tenured faculty member in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences “who demonstrates a broad vision for academic scholarship and a passion for engaging students in discovery and exploration.”

Spring is the 12th recipient of the award. Prior recipients are:

• Stuart Lindsay, Regents’ Professor, Edward and Nadine Carson Presidential Chair in Physics, director of the Center for Single Molecule Biophysics in the Biodesign Institute. He is a professor in the Department of Physics and Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry (2012).

• Donald Johanson, Virginian M. Ullman Chair in Human Origins, a professor of physical anthropology in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change and founding director of the Institute of Human Origins (2012).

• Matthew Whittaker, ASU Foundation Professor in History and founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy – now with the School of Letters and Sciences (2011).

• Heather Bimonte-Nelson, a professor in the Department of Psychology, honored in part for her brain awareness programs for children (2010).

• Stephen Batalden, a professor of history and the founding director of ASU’s Melikian Center for Russian, Eurasian and East European Studies (2009).

• Neal Woodbury, a professor in the department of chemistry and biochemistry, and deputy director of ASU’s Biodesign Institute (2008).

• Nancy Jurik, a professor of justice and social inquiry in the School of Social Transformation (2007).

• Jane Maienschein, a Regents’ Professor and President's Professor, and director of the Center for Biology and Society in the School of Life Sciences (2006).

• James Collins, a professor in the School of Life Sciences (2005).

• Noel Stowe, a professor of history and founder of ASU’s Public History Program, deceased (2004).

• Richard Fabes, director of the School of Social and Family Dynamics (2003).

Margaret Coulombe

Director, Executive Communications, Office of the University Provost